A favourite quote and a way by which to approach life.

Today is the tomorrow that you worried about yesterday.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Sticky and slippy

Way back in the mist of time, before the first Ice Age... Oh okay then, it wasn't all that long ago, and it wasn't the Ice Age as such, it was a month or so ago, and before the first lot of very cold weather this winter, but you get the picture - it seems like ages ago, and it seems as though this snowiness and iciness has been going on forever. Anyway, what was I saying? Yeah, right, well, I made crab apple jelly! Not only that, but I used the crab apples from the crab apple tree in my front garden (aka little patch of mud). And not only that, but it's a crab apple tree that I planted myself a few years back, and it had been a scrappy little thing I'd bought from the 'almost discarded' section of the garden centre. So the process began with the picking of the apples. I took the washing up bowl out to put them in, but there was so much fruit that there was still a fair amount left on the tree even after filling the washing up bowl with the little apples! The recipe was for 4lbs of fruit. I had 13lbs!

I was surprised at how mucky my hands were after picking the fruit as I don't put anything like pesticides or fungicides on the tree, so it must all have been 'natural' dirt and probably car fumes from the traffic on the relatively major road nearby. Needless to say, I decided that the fruit needed a very thorough clean before I started following Mrs Beeton's recipe for crab apple jelly, but once it was washed (and soaped!) and as clean as could be I divided the fruit up into portions of the correct weight for the recipe, and soon saw that I was going to be doing several batches of it. So here's a pic of one batch of the fruit:

Next came the cutting of the tiny apples, and throwing them in a pan with the water and spices:

And boiling them up until they were soft:

Then straining them to get all the lovely juiciness that would (hopefully) become the jelly:
And then boiling up, and trying not to burn, those lovely juices to thicken up:
Now, unfortunately, Mrs Beeton isn't too descriptive in her instructions for when the loveliness is ready to be put into jars, and just says it's ready 'when it sets quickly on a cold plate.' That's all very well, but what is the definition of quickly? I dunno. I still don't know, but I decided 30 seconds to a minute was probably about right, so after much testing I eventually got bored and decided it was ready. I ladelled it into jars, managing to get a fair bit of stickiness on the benches and around the kitchen, and most definitely over all the jars, some of which are still sticky despite the many wiping downs they've had. And after several repetitions of the whole process this was the product of my labour:

I have to say that I was rather impressed with myself, and more than a little surprised that it had all worked out. Not only that, but when I eventually got around to tasting it I discovered it was rather lovely! It goes amazingly well with a strong cheddar cheese, and it was also quite scrummy with the completely made up lentil loaf thingumy that I made for Christmas lunch with W on 17th December (we had an early Christmas together with lunch and a trip to the panto, which was all great fun). What's more, the jelly doesn't only taste scrummy, but it doesn't dribble all over the plate - it's actually jellified! Of course there was far too much crab apple jelly for me to get through so I've been giving jars of it away, and I brought some up to Edinburgh with me where I've been having Christmas with Mum and J.
I came up to Edinburgh on Thursday. Driving. In the snow. It was quite possibly the scariest drive of my life. For any of you who know the A1 north of Newcastle, you'll know that the vast majority of it is single carriage way. It's also now in a terrible state from the freezing temperatures that have wrecked the tarmac and created huge crevasse-like potholes. It's quite something to negotiate these craters, and I'm sure that they could cause a serious accident if a wheel got caught in them at just the wrong angle. So I was trying to avoid these, but at the same time I was having to concentrate hard as I was periodically engulfed in blizzards of snow that reduced visibility considerably, but which didn't deter some maniac drivers from getting right on my tail. My strategy when this happens is always to slow down. I know this may well frustrate the driver behind me even more, but to be honest, if I'm going to be smashed into I want it to be as low an impact as possible.
Then there was the slush and ice. Various stretches of road had been cleared by snow ploughs, but certainly not all, or by any means most. I followed the tyre tracks from the traffic ahead of me as much as possible, but this didn't stop me from occasionally sliding on the slush, and on three occasions I gently skated onto the other side of the road, unable to do anything about it until my car tyres found a bit of tarmac to grip onto again. Amazingly, each time I slid that far over the raod there wasn't any on-coming traffic so avoided a head-on collision and probable death. The road was generally quite busy - the 23rd December being the busiest day of the year for road traffic, apparently - so it surely was that God was watching over me while I travelled north that meant that on each of my excursions to the wrong side of the road there was nothing coming. The whole journey really was quite terrifying and I was exhausted by the time I got here.
I made it to Edinburgh and to my parents' house, and we have been having a lovely, quiet, gentle Christmas together, with an abundance of food (including some of my crab apple jelly) and an abundance of presents. It's wonderful. Neither my mum nor my step-dad are Christians (Mum's a hybrid of agnostic-atheist, whilst J is a committed atheist), but we did all go to the Nine Lessons and Carols service at St. Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral, where they both enjoyed the music, and I enjoyed the music and the joy of the true meaning of Christmas.
I hope you have all had a lovely Christmas and a peaceful time with family and friends. Happy Christmas, all!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Escape route

It's been a wee bit chilly recently. You may have noticed. The two to three feet of snow was the give-away. Oh, and the icicles, which my neighbour knocked down in case they speared someone through the head whilst they stood at the front door. That was probably a good thing, although I was rather enjoying their loveliness, and amazed at the speed at which they were growing. They're gone now, as have the mountains of snow, because of the tropical temperatures we've had over the past two days. It's reached the amazing heights of 6C ! That's a whole 17 C higher than it was only a few days ago! Mind you, we're told to expect more chilliness and brrr-y weather next week.

It has to be said that I'm not a fan of the cold, and it does nothing for my lungs. They tend to seize up and complain, a bit like the rest of country when it snows, I suppose. Anyway, they didn't have a lot of opportunity for seizing up in the cold over the past couple of weeks as most of the time I was trapped in the house. This was in part due to the fact that I managed, somehow, to pick up yet another chest infection. I wasn't sure which way it was going to go, and it was looking increasingly like I was going to find myself slipping towards the Freeman again, but with the aid of domestos-strength co-amoxiclav and cillit bang-strength ciprofloxacin (both antibiotics) it looks like I've escaped hospital this time. Hurrah! I'm very tired still, and not up to doing very much, but at least that makes me sit still and get on with some catch-up OU work.

The other reason my lungs haven't had much opportunity to seize up because of the cold is that I haven't actually been able to get out into the cold very much. My electric wheelchair can't get through the snow, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago. I needed to go to the shops, so I wrapped up warm and set off out the backdoor (where the wheelchair access to my flat is), only to get stuck at the bottom of the ramp, three feet from the door. I tried going forwards, but got nowhere so I tried going backwards. I crashed into the wall and then got stuck again. I managed to slide a couple of inches forward once more, only to get trapped in the snow once more, and find that I was then well and truly stuck with wheels spinning but not gripping onto anything, and the kerb-climber getting completely wedged in the mountain of snow ahead of me. Luckily I was right beside the shed box and remembered that the padlock was merely an inelegant ornament, so I reached sideways, heaved the lid with it's weighty foot of snow on top, rummaged with one hand amid the paraphernalia, managing to avoid slicing my hand on the mitre saw that lurks somewhere in the depths of the box, and pulled out my spade. That was enough to get the old breathing bags complaining, but sitting out in the snow and -11 C temperatures was going to make things a whole lot worse, so I got stuck in to digging myself out. Not an easy task when you're stuck between a shed box, a wall, the side rails of a ramp, and a mountain of snow, but half an hour later I made it the three feet back to the door and was safely inside again. Great. Except that it made me realise that I was pretty much trapped in the house, possibly for the duration of the winter. However, the following evening W came to the rescue and dug me a path all the way from the bottom of the ramp to the back gate. Hurrah! I could go out! I could be part of the outside world!

I decided to make use of my escape route the next day, so once again got all wrapped up and set out to the shops and the post office. No problem getting out the back door. No problem getting through the back yard. Big problem once I got to the back lane. Two feet of snow covered the lane and Taz (electric wheelchair) had no chance of getting through it. I tentatively tried to go forward, but not having my spade to hand I was wary of going too far, which is a good thing as my front wheels very quickly got very stuck. Thankfully, the chair is powered through the back wheels and they were still able to get enough of a grip on a small speck of concrete that W had unearthed (unsnowed) to allow me to reverse. Full of disappointment I trundled back inside.

You'll know by now that I'm not one to be easily defeated, and this situation was no exception, so after sitting a little despondently for a couple of minutes in the middle of the kitchen I got the long-handled broom from the kitchen cupboard. Brush in hand I left the house again, whizzing through the backyard and stopping just before I got stuck in the lane. I started to try to clear a path up the back lane with the brush, but I didn't get very far, and decided that I'd have to get the spade instead. I returned to the house once again, dumping my bag because I figured that I may be sometime on this mission I was on, got the spade, scooted back to the lane and set to work shovelling a path through the snow. I made slow progress clearing the bit of road in front of me like a snow plough, moving myself forward as I went, but progress it was, albeit hard work and hot work. Being the stubborn sort I was determined to get to the shops, even though this meant clearing a path through the snow for 200-300 meters. I did around 50 meters before my arms were aching from the weight of the shovel and I was getting a tad warm (not to mention a wee bit short of breath and tight-chested), so I sat back for a breather (aka wheeze), just as a car passed by the top of the lane along the lane that runs at right angles. A few minutes later, just after I'd got back to snow-clearing, the car reversed and a woman in the passenger seat asked if I was okay or if I needed any help. I said that I was okay, but if they had any time, even a few minutes of help would be great. The woman got out of the car and lit up a fag, the daughter who was about 10 started scraping away some of the snow with her welly-booted feet, and the dad got a shovel out of the car and set to clearing my path for me. He made much more rapid progress than I had been making, and although I'd been planning on joining in with snow-clearing, I couldn't get to the bit that needed doing as this lovely man was directly in front of me. The woman took my spade from me and with a half-hearted effort moved a bit of snow around in front of the man, then stood back, smoked more of her cigarette, and watched her husband build up a sweat as he worked hard clearing the snow. I decided that there really wasn't any point in having my shovel out as I could no longer get to where it was needed, and the woman obviously wasn't going to use it (although she was very nice, chatted, and was the one who had originally asked me if I was okay), so I took the spade back inside and picked up my keys and shopping bag again.

As I arrived back in the lane the lovely man was joined by the estate agent from up the road. She'd got her enormous snow shovel from her car and was helping clear the snow. They'd got to the junction of the two back lanes, and although some of the base snow was compacted into ice (though the top snow was still too soft and deep for me to pass), they pressed on valiantly. Sue, the estate agent, then had to go as she had an appointment to get to, so she went off and the lovely man was left on his own again ... but not for long, because within minutes two lads who I think were students, came dashing out of their upstairs flat, from where they'd seen me out of the window. They were both wearing jeans and t-shirt, but also both brandished big shovels and big smiles, and immediately got stuck into the snow-clearing activity. The lovely man must have been exhausted by this time, having cleared 150 meters or so of snow for me, and he'd been beginning to wilt, but he seemed to get a new burst of energy from the appearance of these jolly student-types. Between them they got to the end of the lane within minutes, and saw me up the dropped kerb (once they'd located it under the snow) and onto the pavement. The lovely man left. Thankfully the student-type lads turned round to check I was okay before they headed back inside, because I promptly got stuck in the snow on the pavement. The lads leaped back into action, and dug a path for me through to the council-cleared section of pavement. I was able to get on my way and go to the post office, but I am ever so ever so grateful to my good Samaritans.

It snowed again that night. Heavily. My escape route was covered over and once again impassable. Still, I'd made it out, posted what I'd needed to post, and got some milk. The snow couldn't go on forever, surely. Hmm, well it soon felt as though it was going on forever, and I was becoming unwell so would need to find a way out once again to get to the doctor. I didn't have the strength to start digging through another couple of feet of the white stuff, so I sat and I thought. And I thought and I sat. And I came up with the idea of phoning the council to see if they could help. The woman in the council offices was very kind, but also very apologetic - they wouldn't be able to help as they usually would because the snow was so bad that all their resources were being taken up by clearing the roads and making sure the main routes to the hospitals and the main shopping areas were snow-free. Oh. Okay. I understood, and it wasn't her fault so there was no point in getting frustrated with her. I decided I'd sit tight and see what happened over the next day or two, but what happened was that the sky continued to fall in and the pond life in my lungs were taking more of a hold. I really did have to get out and get to the doctor.

I'd left it the weekend to see how things were going to pan out, but by Monday evening I could feel things getting a fair bit worse, so somewhere around 6pm I emailed Greg Stone, my Lib Dem councillor. I explained my situation, I said that I understood that the council had to prioritise roads and main shopping areas, but that I'd much rather see my own GP as soon as possible than end up in yet another life-threatening situation. I also pointed out that I'm 36 and need to be able to live a life beyond the walls of my flat, and that there's no way I can spend the whole of the winter shut indoors if the snow is set to stay with us till then. Within an hour Mr Stone had rung me back, saying that he was concerned to hear about my situation and that he'd get straight onto the case. At 8.30 the following morning two council workmen were at my back door with shovels, digging me another escape route all the way up to the local shops. They came knocking on my front door when they were finished, which wasn't until around 11am as they'd done an amazingly thorough job, getting right the way down to the tarmac, and ensured that the path was plenty wide enough for the wheelchair. They'd also gritted the whole lot to minimise any refreezing if it snowed again. I wanted to offer them a cuppa, but after apologising for the quality of the grit (!!!), and saying just to call if I need their help again, they were on their way.

There are some lovely people in the world, and all the good Samaritans who have helped get me through the snow deserve medals.